Bill would require local mask mandates to get city council or county board approval

State health officials’ approval would be required as well

By: - January 17, 2023 4:30 am
Masks in a shop window

(Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

LINCOLN — Nebraska’s local health directors, under a new legislative proposal, could no longer enact a directed health measure, such as a mask mandate, without the approval of their city council or county board and sign-off from state health officials.

State Sen. Kathleen Kauth, a Republican initially appointed in June by former Gov. Pete Ricketts, said she offered Legislative Bill 421 to make sure that people don’t panic and give up their rights as easily the next time there is a public health emergency in Nebraska.

“Masks were the big one,” she said. “When you have someone who’s imposing those, that’s not acceptable because you can’t do anything about that. If the public is upset with an elected official, the first chance they take, there is a remedy for that.”

Nebraska Senator Kathleen Kauth. District 31. (Craig Chandler/University Communication)

Her bill would require city or county health directors recommending an action to seek approval from their local health board, which would codify requiring the approval of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.

The bill also would require any directed health measure to be approved by the pertinent city council or county board.  

Much of Kauth’s frustration stems from the actions of Lindsay Huse, acting as health director for the City of Omaha, who enacted a COVID-19-related mask mandate in January 2022 without seeking the approval of the Omaha City Council. Huse ended the mandate a month later.

Then-Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson sued the City of Omaha and Huse, arguing that she lacked the authority under state law to enact a mask mandate without state approval. He dropped the lawsuit after the council passed an ordinance giving elected city officials veto power on mandates.

State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha, a Democrat, said LB 421 attacks the local control that helped Nebraska weather the pandemic better than most states. Nebraska needs flexibility, she said, not “one-size-fits-all” solutions.

“The approach to handling emergencies like this is not helpful,” Cavanaugh said. “I don’t think we should be doing the same thing in Omaha that we are doing in the rural areas. It’s short-sighted to take away that local control.”

Officials at the Nebraska Association of Health Directors had no immediate comment, nor did the Douglas County Health Department, the Nebraska Association of County Officials or the Nebraska League of Municipalities.  

Kauth said her aim is to get more people to understand that they have a voice in local government.  

“We’ve got things going on, but reach out and just start establishing a dialogue so that you have some way of saying, ‘Hey, I don’t understand this or I’m against this or I’m for this,’ because there are going to be plenty of people who want to have those things done,” Kauth said.

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Aaron Sanderford
Aaron Sanderford

Political reporter Aaron Sanderford has tackled various news roles in his 20-plus year career. He has reported on politics, crime, courts, government and business for the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal-Star. He also worked as an assignment editor and editorial writer. He was an investigative reporter at KMTV.